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Tale of Two Strikes 

Why the SEIU caved and the UTU hung tough

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

It is not entirely true that members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ripped off their clothes and snake-danced naked down Temple Street after the Service Employees International Union’s Local 660 members returned to work last week. Not quite.

Giddy isn’t really the right word; it’s more like happy,” one senior board official remarked. Otherwise, there was sweet talk and a conscientious attempt, more or less, to avoid undue gloating about the countywide strike that was suddenly over in a single day.

“We’ll start by healing the feelings,” said county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen, setting what you might call a New Age tone of conciliation. “This resolution has been good for everyone.” For some reason, you heard no loud agreement from the SEIU 660 headquarters. Its officials were headed back to the bargaining table, after agreeing to call off both their so-called “general strike” and the preceding rolling strikes. There was still the same distance between their 15.5 percent demand and the county’s 9 percent increase offer.

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It was as if the walkout had not happened. Except for one thing: It had, and now the SEIU’s long-standing threat to bring the nation’s largest county to its knees had evaporated.

Here’s an antique City Hall joke:

After decades of polishing the brass cannon on the municipal lawn, the old city worker announces that he’s quitting.

“Retiring?” someone asks. No, he replies: “I’ve bought my own cannon. I’m going into business for myself.” The lesson to the SEIU here is not to make private-sector assumptions about the workings of the public sector. Which the union made, in apparently thinking that Web Street (lately tanking on NASDAQ) had brought Silicon Valley–style prosperity to one of the world’s most cantankerous and overstretched local governments. The union’s best single argument for a 15.5 percent hike, right now, right this year, was that its members were, on the whole, earning less than they’d earned (adjusted for inflation) 10 years before. True, and definitely an unfair thing.

But was it fair for the SEIU to assume that any government supported by taxpayer dollars could, at one swoop, make up all the arrears of a fiscally rugged decade? A decade during which, as the SEIU leadership knows better than most, elected officials openly saved jobs by holding back pay raises?

The big precedent most often cited by the SEIU was that of the janitors’ walkout last spring, an action supported by most Angelenos. But there were two key differences between the janitors’ action and the county walkout. First, the minimum-wage-plus–salaried janitors clearly were about the poorest of the poor in the entire area working class, and second, the management firms and property owners opposing them included some of the richest of the rich. But the average SEIU member makes twice the average janitor’s pay, with benefits beside.

The second big difference was that the county’s pockets really aren’t very deep. As Janssen put it, “Striking doesn’t change the amount of money available.” After all, municipalities can’t offer stock options in lieu of cash raises.

Wiser SEIU heads might have stretched out the decade-wage-parity plan over two years at least, and even made its completion somewhat conditional on the shape of the economy and the county’s ability to pay.

There was also the problem of Local 660’s own structural weakness. Its members hold an amazing range of jobs all over the 4,000-square-mile county — meaning most of them don’t know each other. While far better off than the janitors, most earn $15 an hour or less. So there was no strike fund, without which the striking SEIU membership was like a vast army, out in the field with nothing to eat.

Which brings us to Cardinal Roger Mahony, who never looked better (in the secular context) than he did with his clement letter, offering the SEIU leadership (whose membership’s strike support turned out to be, at best, patchy) a dignified line of retreat to its prior negotiating position — this the optimistic union version, more or less. Or a “fig leaf” to cover defeat, if you listen to the more bloody-minded among the county management — particularly Supervisor Mike Antonovich. But both sides owe Mahony big on this one now. And don’t you imagine for even a second that His Eminence will soon forget it. Yet it’s not yet clear whether even Mahony can — or will — persuade the supervisors to sweeten their standing 9 percent offer.

At least that offer is still on the table. And there’s more talking to be done.

MTA Strike Over, and Maybe the MTA as Well

 

Across town, the 4,300-worker MTA strike last week looked even uglier and further from resolution than the county walkout. But the transit dispute had been more stressed from the start, and after a month, it had rubbed raw the nerves of both parties. Then Jesse Jackson showed up at City Hall Friday, and gradually but surely, both sides saw the light.

There’s a difference between charisma and simple political appeal. Jesse Jackson has lots of both, but it was the first that carried the day. A universal myth as much as a problem solver, he spared the oratory when he told the City Council, “I’m not anxious to become involved in this one; there are other things I’d rather be doing,” in reference to his role in the hard-fought Gore-Lieberman campaign. “Just give me the right to fail.” But his deferential upstage entry in the MTA-strike melodrama brought both sides to their senses.

The following Monday, at Jackson’s urging, the opposing parties locked themselves up overnight in the Pasadena Hilton. That did it — the sticking points on work rules were cleared. And about a half-million local people, who’d been getting to work — if at all — via long walks, borrowed bicycles, improvised ride sharing and costly cab trips, finally had back their trains and buses.

That was the only certainty in the strike’s aftermath. The two big questions outstanding this week were, first, what will now happen to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority?

The MTA’s future — at least in its present form — may not be a long one. On Monday, state legislators moved in on the troubled entity like hyenas around a limping hartebeest. Testimony before an ad hoc legislative-committee meeting downtown disclosed that the MTA had already saved at least $14 million of the $23 million it sought from its workers simply by not paying the strikers for a month. It also emerged that the agency has been spending like a drunken deckhand on such amenities as a million dollars’ worth of strike-oriented PR work and broadcast ads, not counting more than $800,000 additional paid to outside public-relations firms, plus $232,000 for its costly strike headquarters in Pasadena. The total given for such outlays was $2.5 million; all of a sudden, the United Transportation Union’s contention that in the overall $10 billion MTA budget, there had to be $23 million in waste made terrific sense.

Later, at a Pasadena news conference she co-hosted with state Senator Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), Assemblywoman Gloria Romero (D–East Los Angeles) accused the MTA of both union busting and profiting from the strike. Alarcon, who as a Los Angeles councilman was once an MTA board-member substitute, characterized the organization’s actions up to and during the strike as typical of “the arrogance I’ve observed in the past.” Both argued that the MTA’s contract demand for part-time drivers was part of a secret plan to split up the system.

Alarcon also repeated his vow legislatively to transform the present MTA organization by replacing Mayor Richard Riordan’s and other board appointees with generally elected members. Would this change make the ever-ailing transit colossus more responsive to its ridership? Hard to say. But it’s worth recalling that the last time the Legislature meddled in Los Angeles County transit-authority restructuring, it created the very same MTA the Sylmar legislator now proposes to tear down.

Meanwhile, a vital, long-term transit question was not aired. This was, how much had the strike damaged the MTA’s fundamental goal by getting tens of thousands of people who’d just begun commuting via the MTA’s Red Line and high-speed bus routes back into their own automobiles?

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